(Moneywatch) COMMENTARY If I were Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook, I would make New York Times reporter Nick Bilton's recent blogpost on innovation mandatory reading for everyone at the technology giant.
Bilton, who covers technology for the Times, poses a simple question: Why didn't Kodak invent Instagram, the agreed to buy earlier this month for $1 billion? After all, the essence of the app is to turn instant snaps into archival-looking images that you share with friends. Sounds like what Kodak founder George Eastman tried to do with the Brownie, the company's first hand-held camera, more than a century ago (The black and white archival look was standard.)
Today, Apple is every bit as dominant, and in more categories, than Kodak was. Indeed, it's all blue skies for Apple at the moment -- even the technological "clouds" over the company have purpose (like iCloud, its Internet-based storage service for data, book, music, and movie sharing. But it never hurts to be vigilant. Corporate leaders must gaze over the horizon and, as they do, consider what came before them.
Bilton's article is not about technology; it is about nurturing innovation. Companies spend billions trying do it, often unsuccessfully. From the high-tech sector to pharmaceuticasl, companies often prefer to do what Facebook did with Instagram -- buy innovation rather than engaging in the typically more difficult process of developing it in-house.
What prevents companies from doing it themselves? Bilton argues that culture is the culprit. He quotes Michael Hawley, a former member of Kodak's board and a veteran of MIT's vaunted Media Labs, who says, "Cultural patterns are pretty hard to escape once you get sucked into them."
Absolutely. One story I like to share is when I had the opportunity to speak to a group of young associates for a major consulting firm. My topic was innovation, but as I scanned the room I noticed a striking similarity in the room.
No, the issue wasn't diversity. There were an equal number of men and women and from the proverbial rainbow of ethnicities. The similarity was is education -- everyone was a recently minted MBA. To borrow from the title of a website developed by author and editor John Byrne, the participants were quants, not poets. Among the participants, analysis trumped (or trampled) creativity.
Culture isn't the only impediment to innovation -- another is swinging for the fences. Every innovation need not be a home run; such thinking only hamstrings organizations and, worse, stifles creative thought. Odds are the next big thing won't come from a billion-dollar company, but rather from someone's lab, garage, or even the trunk of their car.
Individual entrepreneurs do have major obstacles, like limited resources. But two things they do possess, at least initially, are creativity and time. No one inside their organization (especially themselves) is saying no! So they persevere.
How does a company re-invent itself so it can be more innovative? First, it must look in the mirror. What happens in large organizations is akin to how films are made in Hollywood -- many can say no, but few can give the green light. There are many obstacles to "yes," but that can and should change. Not so a company can create new products per se, but so it can be agile, nimble, and responsive. So it can continue doing what it does and serve its customers more effectively.
How? One manager, one employee at a time.
For example, make it safe for people to fail. Encourage employees to look at their work from another point of view -- that of the customer. What can they stop doing in order to start doing something different in order to serve customers more effectively? What processes can be eliminated? What reports ditched? What tasks forgotten?
This is not an excuse for willy-nilly management. You need to preserve the intention of supervision but find a balance with a creative alternative. This is unlikely to produce the next iPad or billion-dollar app. But it may enable individual employees to find ways to do their jobs better and, in the process, find greater levels of satisfaction for themselves and their customers.
It's not revolutionary. It's common sense.
Image courtesy of morgueFile